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Classic analysis: Sexton leads Leinster to greatest European comeback

We look back on one of the most legendary games in the history of European rugby.
May 12th 2015, 1:00 PM 11,785 26

“THERE WERE SOME inspirational words from Johnny at half-time. He said this game would be remembered forever if we came back from that deficit.”

Johnny Sexton’s speech during the 2011 Heineken Cup final has earned its place in rugby folklore, his words having partly inspired Leinster to complete a remarkable turnaround victory over Northampton Saints.

Jonathan Sexton with the Heineken Cup Sexton celebrates with the 2011 Heineken Cup. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Calling on the spirit of Liverpool and their 2005 turnaround against AC Milan, the out-half stressed to his Leinster teammates that all was not lost as they trailed 22-6 at the break.

Brian O’Driscoll was one of those for whom Sexton’s comments were important: “Besides what he produced in the second half, some of his words at half-time really struck a chord with a lot of people.”

Sexton’s words were not mere cliché, but driven by genuine belief in Leinster’s ability to overcome the heavy deficit in the second half.

The 2009 champions had won five out of six in their pool that season, before beating Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-out stages. Furthermore, Northampton’s big lead in the final had largely come on account of Leinster’s failings.

Joe Schmidt’s men hadn’t even fired a shot themselves in truth. They’d given up the momentum of the game in the very opening minute and Sexton knew that if Leinster could wrestle that back, they had more than enough quality to win.

The Leinster team celebrate with the Heineken Cup The Leinster squad after their remarkable comeback win. Source: /Billy Stickland/INPHO

From the most dire situation they could have feared, Sexton and his teammates produced a sublime 40 minutes of rugby that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.

Shambolic start

Under Schmidt, Leinster had already become renowned for their ability to carry out the basic skills of rugby to an exceptionally high standard. They were well known for their high-tempo waves of intelligent attack too, but getting the minor details right was their underlying manifesto.

Within the first minute of this Millennium Stadium final, there was an unnerving sense that Leinster had slipped out of that mindset.

D'Arce Miss Tackle 1M

Gordon D’Arcy, that beacon of defensive stability and effectiveness so often, completely misses his tackle on Saints centre James Downey in the instance above, overrunning the contact point and being stepped easily back on his inside shoulder.

Leinster’s fielding of the high ball had been superb all season too, even without the injured Rob Kearney. Isa Nacewa had stepped in masterfully at fullback and was arguably the best in that position in Europe.

To see him fail under the early Ben Foden bomb below was as jarring for Leinster as D’Arcy’s missed tackle.

Nacewa Drop

Two minutes later and with Leinster finally getting a good platform to exit from their half with a scrum on the 22, they get shunted back by the Saints pack.

We’ll return to that issue soon, but even though they manage to get the ball away in the incident below, there’s an uncharacteristic knock-on by number eight Jamie Heaslip.

Heaslip Spill 4M

Indeed, Leinster had major problems exiting their defensive third of the pitch in the early stages at Cardiff. That came on account of both a poor platform from the set-piece, carrying and rucking issues, as well as some inaccurate kicking from their halfbacks.

Below, we see Eoin Reddan’s box kick travel barely 15 metres, making Shane Horgan’s task of chasing all the more difficult.

Reddan Exit Probs 15M

Even at that, the sight of Horgan soaring to claim such kicks had become commonplace but he loses the pill on this occasion. Watching on from the stands, Schmidt would have been concerned to see his side failing in areas they usually excelled.

Indeed, it was a Leinster kick that provided the platform for Northampton’s opening try in just the seventh minute of play, after a monster Sexton clearance from inside his 22 rolled all the way dead and gave the Saints an attacking scrum.

Dowson delivers

Already, the signs of Leinster’s alarming scrum difficulties were strong with referee Romain Poite signalling advantage in the passage below before the Saints shift the ball away.

As it transpired, Leinster would have preferred Poite to go straight to the whistle but with Northampton moving forward the Frenchman allows the advantage to play out. Left wing Paul Diggin steps inside Reddan on first phase and then Calum Clark creates on the next.

The key involvement in this attack from the English side’s point of view is obviously that scrum power, but equally as notable is the presence of mind of number eight and Irishman Roger Wilson.

It’s the former and future Ulster back row’s pass that sets Diggin running at Leinster, and then the number eight arrives in as the ‘barrel’ at the ruck, looking to blast Horgan away from the ball.

Shaggy Held Try

Wilson does that much effectively as we can see above, but then he crucially hangs on to Horgan’s left leg as the Leinster wing attempts to get back out into the defensive line for the second phase.

Shaggy Held Try .1

Having glanced in and briefly seen Horgan on his feet, Reddan presumes the Ireland wing is going to be present inside him and therefore drifts out beyond ball carrier Clark and onto Dowson.

However, with Horgan having been pinned down by Wilson, the gap opens wide for Clark to run into and then offload to Dowson to score.

Shaggy Held Try.2

Wilson’s actions here are similar to what Leinster typically did to teams under Schmidt and what his Ireland team now do to their opposition. These little moments of blocking and holding off the ball are vital to linebreaks and tries in a sport featuring so many superb defences.

We’ll see later that Leinster gave Northampton a couple of doses of Wilson’s medicine to balance things up, but they’re beaten at their own game in this instance as the major early momentum they’ve handed the Saints tells on the scoreboard.

Shaggy Held .3

We’ll have to ask Horgan what exactly was said in the brief exchange between himself and Wilson off the ball after Dowson had scored [above]. It looks hostile at first, but is that Horgan then acknowledging, ‘You did us with our own trick’?

With out-half Stephen Myler impressively nailing the touchline conversion, Leinster find themselves 7-0 down with just eight minutes gone.

Still stuttering

Any hope that Northampton’s try would serve as the wake-up call that Leinster were so patently in need of was swiftly quashed as they spilled possession on their first visit to the Premiership outfit’s 22.

D'Arce Spill First Visit 22 11M

The usually error-free D’Arcy coughs up the pill as he looks to fend Christian Day here, denying Leinster an opportunity to build some much-needed attacking pressure. Poite’s knock-on decision is questionable, but it’s still sloppy from Leinster.

Indeed, their indecisive handling was restrictive for the entire first half, as a handful of promising attacks broke down on account of knock-ons.

Once such example comes below, with hooker Richardt Strauss fumbling after Reddan and Horgan combine well down the narrow side from a strong Leinster lineout and maul.

Strauss Spill 18M

The knock-on above actually provides Northampton with the scrum from which they dominantly milk a penalty from Leinster, allowing Myler to kick them into a 10-3 lead with a quarter of the game played.

In that sense, the spill from Brian O’Driscoll below was similarly lamentable, coming as it did on the end of some superb play by Horgan and Sean O’Brien.

Horgan and O’Brien’s efforts here are far more typical of this Leinster team, as the tall wing beats Dowson in a one-on-one situation off set-piece ball, then links with O’Brien who sends on an equally simple pass to the supporting O’Driscoll.

Patience is required as Saints fullback Foden makes a supreme covering tackle, but O’Driscoll is desperate for the try-assisting offload and loses the ball out of his right hand as he hits the deck.

Leinster compound the handling error by conceding another scrum penalty on the very next play as their travails in that area go from bad to worse.

Scrum setbacks

A yellow card to Saints tighthead prop Brian Mujati for a cynical jersey pull off the ball in the 26th minute might have come as a major relief to Leinster given their catastrophic start in the scrum contest.

However, with the Saints sending Tom Mercey on as a replacement front row and bringing Downey in to pack down with the forwards, there was no mercy shown to Leinster.

Leinster’s first chance to regain parity in this area came in the 28th minute, but as we can see above they get absolutely demolished by Northampton’s stitched-up forward unit, retreating up the pitch and conceding the penalty.

Poite decides that this is the time to have a chat with Leinster captain Leo Cullen in order to serve warning of impending yellow cards. Cullen listens patiently before putting his case forward.

Cullen Cullen recognises that the scrum is costing Leinster dearly.

“I’m trying to stay binded [to the front row],” says Cullen. “The loosehead [Soane Tonga'uiha] stands, so we’re coming up and then they’re fuckin’ pushing to go.”

Poite disagrees, saying: “No, your hooker under the pressure is going up. Speak to them.”

Leinster’s big issue in the scrum at this point is the dominance of Tonga’uiha over tighthead Mike Ross. He’s certainly not legal, as we can see with his angle in the image below, but then Leinster are no saints themselves in this area.

Scrum Demolition .1 - Follow Leo chat

It’s wholesale dominance for the Northampton scrum in this first half and Leinster are being sapped of momentum and confidence every time their pack is sent careering back towards their own tryline.

That much is underlined to an alarming degree for the Saints second try.

Foden finishes

Northampton kick the penalty from the above scrum to touch in the Leinster 22 and launch their latest attack, before a forward pass from Myler to Courtney Lawes brings it to a halt.

Scrum Leinster. A means to exiting their 22 or another nightmare situation?

Jim Mallinder’s side answer that question emphatically by winning the ball against the head and forcing Leinster into another defensive set. Those early errors have still not been eradicated from the Irish province’s performance and more defensive mistakes cost them another score.

First, there’s a misunderstanding between O’Brien and second row Nathan Hines to allow Myler to dart through.

SOB Miss for Try 31M

As with every aspect of this try and their others, the Saints deserve hearty credit for their involvement, but Leinster certainly could have prevented the try on this occasion.

O’Brien drifts beyond Myler here, thinking that Hines inside him has the out-half covered, but the lock has been drawn to Chris Ashton running a clever line and providing the option for an inside pass.

Myler

By the time O’Brien realises that he has overshot, it’s too late to turn in and make a tackle on the intelligent Myler. Leinster are cut in the middle and from there it’s always going to be an intense scramble to recover.

Nacewa does his best to slow the pill on the ground, but scrum-half Lee Dickson shifts it away swiftly after Ashton clears the Leinster fullback away. It’s brilliant attacking ball for the Saints, but still Leinster are three-on-three in defence.

BOD Beaten 31M For Try

However, Foden shows his class to finish outside the despairing missed tackle of O’Driscoll. It’s the kind of hit the Leinster outside centre thrived on – outside shoulder, time to line up his man then use the momentum to spring back up for a turnover post-tackle – but he misses this time.

There is the briefest of hesitation in O’Driscoll’s tracking movement from left to right, as he ever so slightly pauses when the ball is in the assisting Jon Clarke’s hands.

BOD

Even at that, O’Driscoll recovers his feet in a split second to be in a good position to complete his tackle. But with Foden accelerating on a gorgeous arcing line, the Leinster midfielder slips off and allows the Saints fullback to score.

There had been some doubt around O’Driscoll’s involvement in the final after a knee issue, and this uncharacteristic miss on Foden might have added to concerns that he was not as close to full fitness as was the norm for him throughout a remarkable career.

Make your tackles

After a high tackle from Mercey on D’Arcy had allowed Sexton to add his second penalty of the game for a 17-6 scoreline with five minutes remaining in the half, Leinster once again shot themselves in the foot.

The usually-skillful Hines drops the restart and allows Northampton immediately back onto the front foot. Mallinder’s side end the period of pressure inside Leinster’s half with their third try of the encounter.

The crucial carry comes on the phase above, as the Saints play wide to the left of a scrum and into the hands of outside centre Jon Clark. D’Arcy and Horgan inexplicably miss their hit on Clark, who drives forward to within four metres of the tryline.

Six phases later, the Saints muscle their way over.

Phase Later - TRY 40M

Half time and Leinster are in a deep, deep hole at 22-6.

Momentum shift

The month before the Heineken Cup final, Leinster had found themselves on the wrong end of a comeback victory. 20-9 up at half time against Munster in a Magners League fixture at Thomond Park, Schmidt’s side ended up losing 24-23.

That turnaround was fresh in Sexton’s mind as he spoke to his teammates at the interval.

“I suppose the same thing happened to us at Thomond Park when the other team gets the next score and gets a bit of momentum going it’s hard to stop,” said Sexton after beating the Saints. “The crowd really got into it and it just snowballed from there.”

Leinster needed to find the keys to a swift momentum shift in Cardiff and they managed to do so as Cian Healy came up with a brilliant turnover almost directly from Sexton’s kick-off at the start of the second half.

From there, Sexton finally got the opportunity to get Leinster’s attacking game ticking.

Healy TO - Sexton Loop Confidence 42M

Sexton runs Leinster’s classic loop play off Horgan in the instance above, which follows Healy’s turnover, and that exact move was to prove decisive later in the game. Crucially, Leinster are getting go-forward attacking momentum here, and while they didn’t score on this possession, it began the process of turning the game on its head.

Having erred in defence for Foden’s try in the first half, O’Driscoll then produced a moment of intelligence and incision to pave the way for Sexton’s first try.

BOD Magic 44M

It takes vision and shrewdness from O’Driscoll to recognise the opportunity and opening in front of him after O’Brien has carried strongly, but more importantly it takes a huge contribution from Heaslip.

The Leinster number eight arrives in to clear Lawes away, but when the Saints second row jumps clear to the left, Heaslip must find a new target. He steps in and blocks Mujati’s effort to get across to the pillar position on the left side of the ruck.

BOD Magic - Heaslip Block

It’s exactly that hole that O’Driscoll bursts into, and then Heaslip stays alive by running an excellent support line to the centre’s right and accepting the pass. Northampton are in dire straits as they look to scramble back in defence.

Four phases later, Sexton pounces.

Sexton Mismatch Phases Later

It’s relatively simple for the out-half in the end, as he identifies the mismatch he’s been presented with on account of Northampton’s disorganisation. Sexton calls for the ball and fully exploits the slow-moving Tonga’uiha to score.

Crucially, Sexton then steps up to slam over the conversion from wide on the right to bring the game back to 22-13. Indeed, the superb place-kicking of Sexton was vital to Leinster’s winning effort as he missed just once from the tee on the day.

Tempo up, tails up

After that disastrous first half, Schmidt made just a single change to his team at the break. Off went blindside Kevin McLaughlin and on came the experience and winning mentality of Shane Jennings.

Much has been made of Sexton’s role and the scrum turnaround, correctly on both counts, but the introduction of Jennings was another vital part in Leinster’s ability to change the course of the game.

His breakdown nous was important after a half in which Northampton had excelled in that area, while his aggression and leadership were also notable. As the momentum shifted, Jennings was present in the thick of the action.

It was the flanker’s big hit on Clarke in the clip above that led to a penalty for Leinster, which the increasingly-lively Eoin Reddan quick-tapped.

This marked increase in tempo was one of the key features of the second half as Leinster imposed themselves more and more. Having gifted Northampton chances in the opening period, Schmidt’s men began to unsettle the Saints with their own rapid attack.

Characteristically slick handling from Leinster in the clip above brings them a penalty as Downey slaps down the final pass on the outside edge with the Irish province threatening to break.

Superb Sexton

Leinster fired the penalty into the Northampton half through Sexton and didn’t leave until they had scored their second try. In a further sign of how quickly the game was changing, it was an initially strong scrum – D’Arcy having been denied by the TMO – that provided the possession platform for the score.

From Scrum Platform Sexto TRY 53M

The try itself comes on phase seven, after a high-tempo passage of attack that sees Leinster shift Northampton from right to left and then move the ball back again. The intention is to stress the Saints defence to fracture point and that is achieved as Sexton breaks through.

As for the build-up to Sexton’s first try, the involvement of Heaslip is absolutely pivotal. Not only is the number eight the player Sexton loops around, but he also takes out a potential tackler after he has returned his pass to the out-half.

Sexton Try Heaslip

We get a better angle of Heaslip’s contribution above, as he delivers the return pass to Sexton and then ‘stays big’ to completely block off Dowson’s attempt to get at Sexton. It’s against the laws of the game of course, but done to an expert level that’s hard to pick up.

Heaslip

Again, it’s trademark Joe Schmidt Leinster as that crucial off-the-ball act allows a teammate to break through the defensive line.

Scrum shift complete

With just 13 minutes of the second half gone, Leinster find themselves back to within two points of Northampton and already the sense is that Schmidt’s men are on an unstoppable surge.

It was fitting that that the penalty which allowed them to take the lead came from the scrum, that same source of humiliation in the first half.

Tonga’uiha again attempts to drive up and in on Ross from the Northampton loosehead side, but the Ireland prop is busy going after his own target. Combining with hooker Strauss, Ross puts extreme pressure on Saints hooker Dylan Hartley.

Crucially, the back five of Leinster’s pack deliver a sterling effort behind the front row, providing exactly what Poite is looking for: forward momentum. The Frenchman is not overly keen on the technicalities of what’s happening in the front row, he just wants to see one side moving forward.

Scrum

Leinster achieve that and the penalty follows swiftly, allowing Sexton to kick them into a 23-22 lead that seemed a remote possibility at one stage of the game.

Utterly and understandably buoyed by their lead, Schmidt’s men began to deliver on the basics with extreme levels of accuracy, such a stark contrast to what they had done in the first half.

Brilliant Exit 58M

The brilliantly-organised and executed exit above takes them from inside their own 22 all the way up towards the Northampton 10-metre line as Sexton’s superb form continues in all aspects of the game.

Having knocked-on under the high ball in the first half, Nacewa then comes up with a soaring take that Leinster’s attacking brilliance feeds off.

Nacewa’s clean gather of the bomb brings even more energy to the Leinster effort, as the ball-carrying of Healy and European player of the season O’Brien comes to the fore.

Both wrecking balls bash through would-be tacklers to bring Leinster surging into the Saints 22, where only another frustrating hand in from Downey prevents them from dotting down again.

Downey Cynical!

Poite brings play back to the previous ruck, which followed a searing Sexton break, and sends Dowson to the sin bin for failing to roll away. Leinster’s out-half knocks over the penalty for a 26-22 advantage to Leinster.

Hines hammers it home

Fittingly, Leinster’s third and final try comes from a strong scrum platform, with the Saints now well beaten at the set-piece.

Ross gets a huge nudge up on the tighthead side, allowing Heaslip to break away to the right and run at Saints out-half Myler. His task is made all the more straight-forward by a clever bit of holding from Jennings on Mark Easter off the ball.

Jenno

Jennings is then first man to the breakdown, clearing Myler away from the ball, as Hines arrives in to manhandle Easter, driving him deep beyond the breakdown point and opening up all that space to the right-hand side that O’Brien runs into.

Hines

Leinster are rampant now, as O’Brien carries and offloads to the supporting Strauss to bring play into the Saints 22 once again, where Cullen makes a sublime catch of the hooker’s offload.

With the dispirited Northampton struggling to regather their composure and defensive organisation, Hines barrels over from close range five phases later.

Hines Try 65M

Though Sexton’s strike is perhaps his wobbliest of the evening, the conversion goes between the uprights and Leinster find themselves in dreamland at 33-22.

Seeing it out

Though their sweeping attack garnered so much attention, Schmidt’s Leinster placed a premium on their defensive effort too. They had the ability to outscore opponents even when conceding tries themselves, but there was genuine pride in their defence.

Even with only 14 minutes of the game remaining and Northampton clearly out on their feet, there was always a slight danger of allowing the English side back into the contest in the closing stages.

A handful of big defensive plays prevented Leinster from having to endure a nervy finish.

Nacewa Smash Ashton

First, Isa Nacewa delivered the above smashing hit on Chris Ashton that allowed replacement Fergus McFadden to win the turnover penalty. Leinster’s fullback is beaten by the pass of Foden to Ashton initially, but he has no intention of giving up on the cause.

The once-capped Fijian international shows phenomenal and inspirational work rate to burst back up the pitch and hammer into Ashton, killing this threatening Northampton attack in an instant.

In a similar vein, the huge turnover penalty from O’Brien in the clip below saps any remaining will from Mallinder’s men.

SOB Turnover Pen

It’s an exceptional piece of counter-rucking from the Tullow man as he bursts right through Clarke and into position to compete for the ball. Panicking, Clarke then plays it on the ground and concedes the penalty.

There were other moments too, including an excellent read and hit by O’Driscoll on replacement Joe Ansbro, the opposite to his first-half involvement for the Foden try.

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